Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Shabbat 89 – The Torah Revealed from Heaven

One of the offenses that would deny an Israelite a place in the world to come, according to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) is to deny that torah min ha-shamayim – the Torah is from heaven. The idealization of the Torah in rabbinic Judaism has its parallels in the idealization of wisdom in Hellenistic and Biblical wisdom literature – for example, “it is a tree of life” in Proverbs 3:18 is about wisdom; the rabbis read that phrase as referring to Torah.

But there are always complications bridging heaven and earth. According to today’s Talmud page, when Moses ascended via Mount Sinai to heaven to receive the Torah, the angels objected to his presence – they use a line from Psalm 8:5 “what is man, that you are mindful of him?” to object to his giving humanity the Torah, a secret treasure that existed 700 generations before the world itself was created! God tells Moses to answer them, and he is afraid lest they destroy him, so God extends his protection and Moses lets them have it. With citation after citation, he makes clear that the Torah was written for human beings and for the Israelites – “honor your mother and father,” “I brought you out of Egypt,” and so on. This Torah that Moses receives has been handwritten by God himself – when Moses ascends, he sees God writing the taggin, or crowns, on the letters. THIS is the basis for the rabbinic reverence for the Torah that, if one watches how traditional congregations treat the scroll, borders on “Tor-olatry” [Torah idolatry].

All of this legendary storytelling has clear goals: to make Jews feel special to be chosen to have received the Torah, to encourage piety and obedience to rabbinic authority as the authorized interpreters of this heavenly text, to create wonder and awe as part of the religious experience every time the Torah is taken out for ceremonial reading. We who see the Torah as the product of human beings are at once more and less impressed – it is not the product of heavenly powers, but isn’t it amazing that we are still reading the product of HUMAN powers so many centuries later! Not worthy of worshipping, but definitely worth exploring.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

There is also an amusing discussion in the second half of this page where God says to Isaac “your children have sinned” and Isaac retorts “when they said ‘we will do and we will hear’ you were proud to call them “my children,” but now that they sinned you’re calling them ‘YOUR children?’” How many parents have had similar discussions?